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Buried in the Aftermath: Death of Canmore's Doug Churchill after 2016 avalanche leads to survivors forming Backcountry Safe initiative

Over the next four weeks, the Rocky Mountain Outlook will examine several incidents where guided trips into the mountains of western Canada resulted in avalanche fatalities. Caught up in these events are the guides trained and hired to protect public safety, the clients who hired them, and the friends and family left behind.

The mountains call to many.

To those looking to find a challenge – physically and mentally – these rocky peaks, valleys and ridges can deliver in spades. For those looking to connect with nature and to find the healing that these rugged landscapes offer, the call is hard to ignore.

But for others, the mountains can also be a place where trauma occurs – the kind of trauma that leaves everyone involved forever changed. The trauma runs deep, creating crevasses of questions echoing out from survivors trying to understand the why and how of what happened.

In February, 2016, a group of 10 Canmore residents and friends booked a backcountry hut near Rogers Pass for a week of ski touring.

They also hired a professional Association of Canadian Mountain Guide (ACMG) to take them safely into the surrounding wilderness to enjoy this increasingly popular recreational pursuit, assisted by another experienced backcountry recreational user as a "tail" guide. 

Sheila Churchill, her husband Doug, along with friends Mitch Putnam, and Dave and Jenny Crompton, were all part of what had become a traditional annual trip into the mountains, in its third year. Putnam and the Cromptons, were new additions to the week-long adventure.

On the morning of Feb. 21, the group of 13, including the guide, tail guide and the custodian from the lodge, headed out into the Esplanade range of the Selkirk Mountains.

It was the first full day of ski touring, and even though the guide said there would be a morning meeting to discuss the day’s objectives, it didn’t occur. There was also a special public avalanche warning in place from Avalanche Canada, which the group was unaware of.

Putnam said one of the biggest lessons learned that day was the group had checked out mentally, because they hired a guide. But, it was something reinforced by the guides, as well.

Putnam said he had tried to have a conversation with one of the guides the day before to better understand the hazards at play in the snowpack, but was told not to worry about it because that is why they had hired them in the first place.

“We handed responsibility over to our guide and headed out early that Sunday morning for our first run,” he said. “Unfortunately, we never had a group discussion about [risks].”

The first objective was to ski a south facing slope, but that soon changed after realizing it was sun affected from the day before and unsafe. The group then approached a new ridge to ski a north aspect slope.

The guide dug a snow pit to analyze the conditions before proceeding to a run known as Hogzilla, which is an avalanche chute on the eastern side of Avalanche Mountain that can be skied under the right conditions.

Some members of the group felt uneasy about the terrain; Churchill had not yet recognized it was beyond her comfort level for their first day out.   

The guide set a track, asked everyone to follow one at a time and re-grouped part way down the steep slope. Eight skiers were approximately 40 per cent of the way down; two skiers were skiing below and two above.

Only one skier had skied up out of the gully onto the side of the slope closer to the trees. The tail guide triggered the 2-3.5 sized avalanche at 11 a.m. when they skied over a convexity of snow that released.

After the slide came to an end, only two people had managed to avoid being caught up in it.

Five people were fully buried, five partially – including both guides. Rescuers were called and the work began to extricate everyone from the debris field. Doug was critically injured and flown by STARS air ambulance to a Calgary hospital; however, a few days later he died as a result of his injuries.

“It was a very serious critical incident and when the dust settled over the following weeks and months, we had some questions and concerns about some of the decisions that were made that day,” Putnam said.

In the aftermath, Churchill was unable to get answers to those questions, or resolution for their concerns.

The ACMG does not investigate critical incidents involving its members; however, its insurance company does and as a result, those processes remained confidential. ACMG guides may submit an incident report to the association afterwards, but it is not mandatory. 

While the British Columbia coroner investigated the incident, there was no other independent analysis of what occurred and no process that would address the questions being raised by those affected.

Churchill pursued the ACMG’s conduct review process because she said they thought a self-regulating organization tasked with keeping the public safe would want to find answers as well. She found the process less than satisfactory for addressing her concerns.

Churchill was surprised to find out the ACMG’s lawyers and insurance providers set the tone of all her requests for information and the association’s response was to circle the wagons, so to speak, and protect the guides from liability.

“We had already been through enough trauma,” Churchill said. “My husband was dead and yet I had the secondary trauma of trying to get answers … and we were up against the very deep pockets of an insurance company. They did not want to share anything with us and we needed answers.

“It was not pretty. It was extremely brutal and difficult for me to go through that.”

Their lives forever changed as a result; Churchill was watching the calendar because there is only a two-year window to launch a civil claim in the courts – it was the last play she had to try.

A year-and-a-half after the avalanche, a statement of claim was filed in the B.C. Supreme Court against the two guides involved and the ACMG. Churchill sought no financial compensation – signaling to the industry, its lawyers and insurance providers the outcome was not going to be compensation, but tough conversations.

It took a lot to get to that point, as Churchill had not only lost the love of her life, but had been injured as well in the avalanche. There was a “very big dark hole” she had to learn to deal with as a result, but after she put her life back together, she was ready for answers.

“I did through my journey know that the only way I was going to be able to come through on the other side as a whole person, was to understand exactly what happened on the day of the avalanche and what role I played in that,” she said.

The lawsuit resulted in the ACMG coming to the table to discuss resolutions, including a restorative justice process to help all involved process the trauma they experienced. A discontinuance was sought with the support of all parties involved. The Outlook reached out to the lead guide involved to be interviewed for this story; however, they declined to be interviewed for this story. 

The ACMG, as a result, committed to conduct a comprehensive review of its post-critical incident process and produce a report that would include recommendations for how it manages serious incidents on trips guided by its members – work that was awarded to consultants Alpine Specialists and remains ongoing with a final report expected to be publicly released later this year.

Just shy of the five-year anniversary of the avalanche, Churchill, Putnam and Crompton launched a new initiative called Backcountry Safe designed to promote and create awareness for the public recreating in the backcountry that safety is everyone’s responsibility.

The group that had fought to find answers was also doing the difficult work to understand the human dynamics at play that day, including their own roles.

“One of the positives that has actually come out of Backcountry Safe is the fact the ACMG has acknowledged they have gaps in their learning and in their protocols,” Churchill said. “They have collaborated with the four of us to get that client perspective.”

Both initiatives will hopefully deliver the results Churchill was looking for – a more robust and professional process for the industry to handle critical incidents on guided trips and increased awareness for the public around its responsibilities when in the backcountry, with or without a guide.

“We have learned so much,” Churchill said. “I learned, unfortunately, more in the last six months about the human aspects that I should have known back in 2016.

"The information is out there, but we did not take advantage of it because we believed in theory it won’t happen to us and we thought we had done our due diligence.”

Knowing what she knows now, Churchill said she recognizes the human dynamics at play on the slope that day. There were different levels of ability and everyone was put together in one large group.

“We were good friends, but had never sat down and talked about what is an acceptable level of risk and that was a critical part missing in our group,” Churchill said, adding nobody with a lower fitness or comfort level wanted to be the one “holding up the group.”

Putnam said it is understandable to defer to the person with the most knowledge and experience – and in this case it was the professional mountain guide. However, when in terrain that carries serious consequences, it is important the clients know the guide and the guide knows the clients.

“There needs to be an understanding of the variability of risk tolerance and physical abilities,” he said.

Putnam said they are not looking to blame the guides involved that day, even though they had questions about the decisions that were made. He said the focus of Backcountry Safe is to understand the role everyone plays in the backcountry when it comes to how decisions are made.

In 2005, Putnam’s sister Linda, 40, was one of four skiers that died in an avalanche while on a guided trip near the Austria resort of St. Anton. In that instance, the guide ended up being charged with manslaughter, which does happen in some European countries like France, Italy and Austria when fatalities on guided trips occur. 

It represents a completely different approach to these types of situations and ultimately results in an independent judicial examination of the circumstances to understand all the factors at play when a fatality on a guided trip into the mountains occur.

“It is shocking how they deal with incidents over there,” Putnam said, adding his family still has a close relationship with the guide. “A lot of guides involved in critical incidents, including in the Alps, never guide again. It is almost tragic.”

New Zealand also has a different way of handling critical incidents that is supported by the fact the country has a no-fault insurance regime in place. New Zealand Mountain Guides Association (NZMGA) vice-president Lewis Ainsworth said anyone injured in that country, including visitors, is covered by the nationalized insurance program. That means all medical costs and any potential loss of income is covered by the government while you recover.

“We might not have the same potential for litigation as might exist in other places, so that does take a bit of the pressure off,” Ainsworth added. “We do not really have a litigious culture because of our accident compensation corporation – it is a pretty amazing thing.”

In the event of a critical incident that involves a NZMGA member guide, either a fatality, injury or near miss, the association would immediately launch an investigation to prepare a report into the circumstances. He said members are expected to report these incidents to the association, noting one of the purposes of the process is to support those that find themselves involved in a serious incident.

However, he said if a NZMGA guide did not want an investigation, they can forego the process. That being said, Ainsworth indicated there is a culture in the guiding industry in New Zealand to take an honest look at critical incidents to identify areas to improve.

“If there was an incident and a member did not want [us to investigate and create a report] we would walk away from it,” he said. “But the precedent is that it is in everybody’s interest that we support our members in terms of going through the whole process.”

An interim report is prepared and distributed to subject matter experts for review. Identifying information is removed, to keep the process anonymous. The reports look at whether or not standard operating procedures were followed and it identifies new information for the industry to consider moving forward.

“We are looking at how we can develop and improve the system all the time,” he said, adding they try to promote and create a culture of safety and transparency within the industry.

It can take up to six months for an injury, and several years if there was a fatality for a report to be completed. Ainsworth said that is because when there is a fatality involved, the NZMGA must wait for the coroner and Worksafe safety investigators to complete their processes first.

Up until 2005, the association held the primary role of conducting an investigation into fatalities and critical incidents for its members. However, after a few high-profile incidents in the outdoor adventure activity industry, Ainsworth said Worksafe took over that role and provides that regulatory oversight and official investigation process now.

However, he said it is important for the NZMGA to support its membership with a detailed and technically accurate report into an incident, so any important lessons can be shared and learned from.

“It is not within the context of finding fault, but purely in the context of trying to improve as an industry,” he said. “Essentially, it is our job to always provide a second opinion, and a technically informed opinion is how we can best support our members.”

Part two of Buried in the Aftermath will look at how mountain guides are affected by critical incidents that occur in the backcountry. They can be killed or injured; and when a client dies, they must also deal with the worst nightmare for a guide. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the group hired two ACMG guides for their trip. Only the lead guide was a member of the association at the time, the "tail" guide was a backcountry recreational user. The original story also referred to the lawsuit that was filed as seeking $1 in compensation, which was communicated to the Outlook during an interview withe the survivors of the avalanche. The statement of claim, however, set out no dollar amount for compensation and it was through the communications of legal counsel for the survivors that the intention was that there would be no financial settlement sought through the legal challenge. The Outlook also reported that the lead guide did not respond to an interview request, however, they did reach out and declined the to comment on this story. 

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